Tom Clancy's EndWar Impressions and Interview

At the recent Ubisoft press event, I got a chance to try out the Ubisoft Shanghai-developed Tom Clancy's EndWar, that voice command-enabled, real-world RTS for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

At its core, EndWar is fairly simple. You command tanks, infantry, helicopters and artillery, all arranged in small unit groupings a la World in Conflict. You capture points. You call in reinforcements. You say things like "task force one, attack hostile three." You feel kind of cool, and a little ashamed at the same time.

The voice recognition works surprisingly well, picking up my words on a noisy show floor without much trouble. In fact, the only bothersome aspect of the whole thing was remembering to hold down the right trigger before talking, and to let it go afterward. Unfortunately, the game does not recognize wanton cursing.

A few minutes into my demo, I had most of the basic voice commands down. The thing is, I'm not sure it actually saved me much time, as the controller works pretty well for basic commands. Often I ended up using a combination of the two, selecting a unit with the controller and ordering it to attack a hostile with voice.

The pace of the game quickens significantly once two forces meet. From then on, it's a rock-paper-scissors affair, with choppers blasting away at tanks, tanks taking out troop transports, and infantry holing up in buildings. Air strikes can be called in, and experienced units can utilize secondary fire abilities. When one unit dies, you bring in another from your reserves, continuing this replacement until your stockpile runs out. Though mildly fun, it was nothing I hadn't seen before. Registered users can use the HD Stream.

But while EndWar doesn't seem a radically original game on the surface, I only got my hands on a small, relatively basic mission. With the added complexity of diversified units that carry over between levels, a group of friends to play with cooperatively, and the MMO metagame, I can see it becoming a worthwhile experience.

Speaking of that MMO metagame, I had a chance to talk with Ubisoft Shanghai representative Julian Gerighty about the portion of the game that wasn't on display. We went over online play, the World War 3-themed single player campaign, and other development-related topics--including a strange Mario Kart twist.

Shack: Can you tell me a little about the MMO portion of the game?

Julian Gerighty: The online mode is actually the most ambitious Ubisoft's ever tried, on PC or on console. It's that much work, and we're doing two beta tests on it--one very limited one that's gonna kick off next month, one wider one a couple of months after that, which will open up into a demo. These things will help us iron out any bugs, but also balance the game. So we're really squeezing that to test the networks, stuff like that.

The MMO aspect is, it's kind of simple. You pick your faction--say, Russia--and you defend or attack alongside all your comrades. Let's say 100,000 people are playing--let's say you are all attacking Paris, you've won the conquest of Paris, you manage to win a majority of games on Paris that day, the next day, the map will be updated not only in the game but online, on the companion site, with the new battlefront, the new front line. And every day that will happen. There are 40 territories around the world, and it plays out like a RISK game between the three factions. You're basically playing the matches, but there's the overall RISK metagame on top of that.

Shack: And I assume the metagame will roll over at some point?

Julian Gerighty: We're anticipating every three weeks having a new world war. And we've got a community developer who's going to be creating events also. So maybe you'll turn on your console one day and you'll see a call to arms to dominate an oil refinery that's gonna give your mechanized units a boost, or an air strip that's gonna give your air units some increases too. So different territories have different strategic importance too.

Shack: How is multiplayer set up as far as matchmaking and group play?

Julian Gerighty: [The game will have] play groups on PS3--which are a huge pain in the ass to develop by the way--and you've got the clan kind of thing too. It's four people per side maximum in co-op, so four vs. four, eight people total. Or you can play one vs. one, two vs. two.

Cooperative works really well, and we think it's going to be a big deal for people to specialize in certain types of units. So you going to have the best tank brigade around, and your friend who's gonna have the best gunships and specialize in gunships with all of the upgrades will join with you, and you'll have this kind of force. And of course if you survive battles you get experience and money and you can upgrade. We've got about 100 upgrades per faction.

Shack: So you start with a basic set of units, and you specialize from there. And so will your forces be wiped every 3 weeks as well?

Julian Gerighty: Yeah.

Shack: Will there be a way to manage your troops?

Julian Gerighty: There's a barracks. Our main inspiration: Need for Speed, the garage in Need for Speed. You add the upgrades and see them pop onto your helicopters, your tanks, stuff like that. The barracks is where you track the skills, the upgrades, even the camo patches that you've got on your troops.

Turn the page for Gerighty's comments on voice commands, the single player campaign, and Mario Kart. _PAGE_BREAK_

Shack: And how many unit types total for the game?

Julian Gerighty: Seven unit types, but with different upgrades, it makes hundreds of different combinations. We really wanted that Advance Wars type of approach where you have very simple units and multiple combinations of them. So very recognizable, very accessible. And then the depth comes from playing it and getting deep into the experience type of thing.

Shack: Outside of the metagame, will there be just a standard mode for multiplayer?

Julian Gerighty: Skirmish.

Shack: How long did it take before the voice activation started to click?

Julian Gerighty: Actually it's a technology that's got better generation after generation. You can put more processing power behind it too. What's really interesting is that if you design the whole game around very simple actions, but then combine those actions to get depth out of it, you can get some really, really deep. So there are about 40 or 50 different commands, but those combinations get really deep.

We didn't actually set out to make it voice controllable, it just fell into place really early on. So we started thinking let's streamline it--thumb sticks, d-pad, two buttons, that's it. And then it became apparent that even more accessible, and even more immersive--because you're basically an armchair general--is voice command.

Shack: I assume there will be a training mode for voice command?

Julian Gerighty: Yes, there is.

Shack: Because when playing, you don't assume it's going to be tricky, but it felt like there was a definite learning curve.

Julian Gerighty: The story missions are there for that too. You start off really slow. What you just played here, this is after three, four hours of play. You start off the first mission, you are only controlling one helicopter, then a second helicopter appears mid-mission. So it's just getting used to "unit one, move to," "unit one attack," it's as simple as that. That's the first fifteen minutes. You were playing it fine after five, ten minutes.

Shack: How expansive is the single player campaign?

Julian Gerighty: Single player campaign is split into two parts. First you've got the story missions, what we call the prelude to WW3. So you're playing all the steps that lead up to the explosion of WW3. You get to try out each of the factions, see which one you like the best. So the first few missions are done with the Europeans, then you play the Russians, then you play the Americans. But once WW3 starts, you get to choose your faction, and then it's on to world domination.

Shack: And at that point, how much game is there?

Julian Gerighty: We're aiming--Mike, the creative director, what does he tell me--I see it as 15 to 20 hours. There's a set amount of turns, minimum turns, and then the maximum turns. It's been one of the challenges to organize different briefings to dynamically react to what you've actually done. So in terms of voice recording and story setting, this is the most expansive game Ubisoft's ever done. More expansive than the action adventure games we've done.

Shack: Can you give me a sense of how deep the strategy gets in this game?

Julian Gerighty: The strategy is deep. The first few missions you'll be presented with the rock-paper-scissors aspect of playing. You'll get into it slowly. Then when you realize that your infantry can garrison, they can snipe, they can set mines, they can do things that are fairly advanced, and you start using those actions--then it gets really really deep. All of those units will have secondary fires if they have enough experience. When it's just purely focused on strategy, instead of micromanaging, instead of getting resources together, then you're getting something that's very fast, very visceral at the same time.

Shack: You mentioned something about Mario Kart earlier.

Julian Gerighty: Yeah. One of the big, big cheeses at Ubisoft is called Serge Hascoet. He's the guy behind Rayman, he's the guy behind hundreds of things. He's a very creative guy, and a little crazy. So we were working on this game, and we found that at the end--one of the problems with strategy games is that when you're dominating, it's no fun for you or [your opponent]. It's just mopping up the one, and trying to avoid being mopped up for the other. So we wanted to give it this reversal, and the reversal came in the form of the last lap of Mario Kart.

When you get that red shell, you know that you can take out that number one driver on the last lap. So on the last lap, our last lap, in the last few moments of the game, you unlock weapons of mass destruction that can take out a huge amount of enemies. Most of the stories, when [the developers] are discussing games at the water cooler, they come from that.

Shack: Did Tom Clancy provide any input on the game?

Julian Gerighty: Tom Clancy for us is a great framework for realism, geo-politics in general, and day-after-tomorrow technology. So military advisers help us with the weapons. Nothing's in the game that doesn't exist in the prototype stage. So yeah, Tom Clancy sends these rules, and even Red Storm Rising was an inspiration for the storyline for this. It's really useful for those reasons.

His people check everything. We have to get everything validated. We do everything with the Tom Clancy values in mind.

Shack: So what are the platform plans? Is a PC release in the cards?

Julian Gerighty: There's PS3 being released at the same time as the 360, we've also got PSP and DS version but they're more based on Advance Wars than this obviously. So it's more turn based rather than real-time.

We're also thinking about the PC version, because at the end of the day, it's less about a console strategy experience and more about a different kind of strategy experience, that fusion between a first person shooter, a sports game and a strategy game. So you know, a PC version kind of makes sense, but we won't release it straight away, we need to finish up the console versions first.

Shack: And the console version is coming out when?

Julian Gerighty: It's October-November. I'm pushing for October, other people are pushing for November. [laughs]